The breaking news is that tonight (Saturday night), Barack Obama will announce he has resigned his membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago — the former pulpit of Jeremiah Wright from which the Catholic priest Michael Pfleger made his incendiary remarks about Hillary Clinton. This is of course the same church that Obama said contained within it every aspect of the black community (which raises the question of whether he is, by the same logic, resigning from the black community). There’s something about this decision that raises more questions than it answers. Is Obama doing this now because he is on the verge of securing the nomination and no longer needs to worry so much about disappointing his base? Or is he worried there is more to come on YouTube from the Trinity United stage and he wants to have dissociated himself from it all beforehand? Is he going to have to give another major speech on race to revise and amend his previous speech on race?
Dana Priest is a national-security correspondent for the Washington Post. Her professional success depends in large part on her ability to ferret out secrets from the U.S. intelligence and defense bureaucracy and from knowledgeable officials on Capitol Hill.
Sources within government, acting in violation of the laws governing secrecy, regularly provide her with classified information in exchange for her promise not to disclose their identity, even if this means she must defy a court order and possibly go to jail. Last year, Priest won a major journalism award for a November 2005 article bringing to light the highly classified fact that the CIA had established detention facilities for terrorists in foreign countries.
Because reporters have lately been going to jail with some frequency—the imprisonment of Judith Miller in the Valerie Plame leak investigation is the most famous recent instance, but there have been others—pressure has been building for federal “shield-law” legislation that would exempt reporters from being compelled by courts to disclose their sources.
• I observed in the current issue of COMMENTARY that “one learns surprisingly little about American religiosity from modern American art. Though some of our major novelists, most notably Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, have been preoccupied with religious matters, it is far more common for American writers either to ignore religion altogether or to portray it as a destructive feature of American life.” I might also have mentioned Jon Hassler, were it not for the fact that he is comparatively little known outside of his home state of Minnesota. He is, nevertheless, a novelist of real quality—and one who differs from most of his contemporaries in understanding that it is impossible to portray modern American life as it is lived without making room for religion.
• When I was an undergraduate music student, there were two pieces of New York-related classical-music trivia guaranteed to reduce the most unruly class to stunned (if short-lived) silence. One was that Leonard Bernstein was listed in the Manhattan phone book, and the other was that Lorenzo Da Ponte was buried in Queens. Bernstein has since acquired a new number, but Da Ponte’s bones can still be found in a common grave within the city limits of New York. From time to time this fact comes to the attention of a local newspaper editor, who thereupon commissions a feature story about the complicated life of the man who wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Così fan tutte.
I humbly confess that until last week, everything I knew about Lorenzo Da Ponte could easily have been crammed into the compass of a shortish feature story. Now, however, I know enough to fill a book. The book in question is Rodney Bolt’s The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America, a fully sourced biography that is nonetheless intended for the edification of a non-scholarly audience. Bolt is a director-turned-travel writer who has a lively style, a good eye for detail, and a fabulous story to tell, all of which add up to an exceedingly readable book.
Last Sunday, I had reason to be grateful that places of worship are under the law of the land. At my local Catholic church in Kensington, I found myself helping to restrain a menacing and evidently inebriated young man who had ventured inside, accompanied by his German Shepherd dog.
Swaying slightly, the intruder advanced up the steps towards the altar during the most solemn part of the Mass, the prayers of consecration, and began to wave his arms about, mocking the priest—a newly ordained and rather nervous young Cuban—as he did so. On their knees, the congregation looked on aghast, wondering what the man would do next.
At this point I, together with another layman of military bearing and one of the older altar servers, took it upon ourselves to intervene. The parish priest (not the one celebrating Mass) quickly appeared and together we coaxed the man, uttering threats and racist abuse, out of the building. The police arrived and quietly took him away.
It is not easy for a non-Muslim to gain the approval of Sheikh Abdal-Hakim Murad. A prominent British convert to Islam, he is the secretary of the Muslim Academic Trust in London and director of the Sunna Project at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge University. He is also the imam of the Cambridge mosque and an influential commentator on the BBC and in the British press.
Abdal-Hakim regards himself as a moderate, and is taken at his own valuation by the British media. A careful study of his website (which, as it happens, shares its name with this one) causes me to doubt the sheikh’s moderation. This, after all, is a man who sees the Bush administration as “theocratic” but who warns the West that “the Caliph’s first task will be to flog those who call Islam an ideology.” It is clear that the years he spent at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, and later in Saudi Arabia, have left their mark: Abdal-Hakim is a Sunni fundamentalist.
He is, however, broad-minded enough to write for a Christian newspaper, the Catholic Herald. Last week he reviewed Islam: Past, Present, and Future, the new book on Islam by Hans Küng. Küng is a controversial Swiss theologian who has been in conflict with the Catholic Church for some 30 years, but remains a Catholic priest “in good standing,” as he likes to remind his critics.